Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Four seasons in two days at the hide

Things are moving up a gear at Loch Frisa with only 9 days left to go before we expect our first chick to hatch. Skye and Frisa are patiently sitting it out and taking it in turns to incubate, but the recent weather must have confused them. One day we have brilliant sunshine and temperatures of 20 degrees, the next it is 6 degrees and pouring with rain. And as the weather changes so does the eagles' behaviour.

When it is wet the bird on duty is way down in the nest, huddled around the egg(s) to keep them warm and dry, and just occasionally raising its head over the edge of the nest to check all is well. On the warmer days it will sit a little higher in the nest, maybe preening from time to time and rearranging the twigs on the nest.

During the torrential rain last week there were very few changeovers, with the incubating bird patiently sitting it out for hours, but on the first day of fine weather the eagles were changing over every two or three hours.

Today was one of sunshine and showers, and during one of the sunny spells we watched Skye gently turning the eggs underneath him before settling down again to wait for his mate. Frisa, on the other hand, had enjoyed 6 hours off the nest returning just after our last trip to the hide had finished. She can be forgiven for being away for so long, since she is usually the one to stay on the nest all night.

Both birds have been bringing in grass and twigs to line the nest and keep it clean, something that they will continue to do until the chicks fledge. There has been plenty of activity from other wildlife, including a male and female Hen Harrier seen in the same area on separate occasions so we are hoping to watch a pair sky-dancing in the future.

Yesterday we were watching two Buzzards being mobbed by a Raven, when in flew Skye, then a Peregrine Falcon joined in the fray. The Raven transferred its attentions to Skye who quickly turned the tables and our last sight of them was of the Raven disappearing over the ridge hotly pursued by a very indignant Skye!

So far this week our trips have all been full, so if you are thinking of visiting the Sea Eagle hide do be sure to book a place through the booking office on 01680 812556.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Time for a Bath

After yesterday's torrential rain, with more overnight, you would think our eagles had seen enough water, but no! We arrived at the hide this morning with the first trip of the day and thankfully it was dry enough for everyone to stand outside to get the best views of the eagles.

Skye was on the nest incubating those precious egg(s), and I started to tell our visitors about the history of the White-tailed Sea Eagle in the UK, whilst they scanned the sky and trees for a sign of Frisa. Suddenly a shout went up - "Eagle" - and we all watched as Frisa flew in over the trees.

At first we thought we were going to witness a changeover as she came right over the nest and she and Skye called to one another. But she kept going and suddenly dropped rapidly over the loch. I saw a group of gulls fly up as Frisa swooped, came up and swooped again, and I thought she must be trying to catch one. For a few moments she went out of sight, then someone spotted her. She wasn't sat plucking a gull as I expected, but standing in the water at the edge of the loch having a very thorough bath!

She dunked first one wing, then the other right under the water, then crouched down flapping both wings and her tail. Then she walked onto the shore and sat preening, cleaning individual feathers with her beak.

We thought she would be satisfied with her ablutions but a few minutes later she was back in the water going through the whole process again - whilst all the time the gulls mobbed her. Once again she hopped out of the water and this time she travelled further up the bank and spent at least another half hour preening, before flying back over the loch and disappearing out of sight.

It's likely that Frisa had been hunting earlier in the morning and her feathers were probably soiled with the blood and innards of whatever she had been feeding on. Birds of prey are very fastidious about keeping their feathers clean and healthy - soiled, sticky or salt-laden feathers lose their waterproofing and the bird can chill much more quickly.

One favourite component of Skye and Frisa's diet is Fulmar - a sea bird which they catch either in flight, or pluck from its perch on the cliffs. However, the Fulmar has an unpleasant but highly effective defence mechanism - it spits a disgusting mess of regurgitated fish at its adversary! This substance is very oily and can severely damage feathers, so predators are quick to clean it off.

Although the sun didn't manage to break through the low cloud today, it stayed dry until later in the afternoon and Frisa was spotted during the afternoon trip sitting in a tree with her wings spread wide. The breeze would have quickly dried off her damp feathers, ready for her to take over incubation duty from Skye.

We had a scare today when the alarm which warns us that someone is walking, cycling or driving along the track near the nest kept sounding at our watch point, yet no-one appeared at our end of the track. The worst possible thing for the eagles is for someone (or worse still a group of people) to stop on the track to watch the nest. Incubation is such a sensitive time and it doesn't take much disturbance to put the adult bird off the nest. In this cold, damp weather the egg(s) would chill within minutes, so I jumped in the van and drove down the track wondering what on earth (or who on earth) I was going to find.

The perpetrator of the crime was none other than a harmless spider! It had woven its web across the front of the sensor, and every time it crossed the beam it set off the alarm warning us that someone was in the wood. I carefully gathered up the spider and relocated him to a nearby tree, and peace reigned again. There's never a dull moment on sea eagle watch!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Back in Business at Loch Frisa

Well, the last six months have flown by and, as expected, I wasn't able to keep away from Loch Frisa during that time! Skye and Frisa kept us guessing as usual, building a new nest at the North end of the loch and then ...guess what? They flew back to the "Springwatch" nest and laid their egg(s) there.

So another season starts and I am delighted to be back in post (as of today) and privileged to follow the lives of these very special birds. Our eagles are about mid-way through their 38 days of incubation and are sharing their responsibilities on the nest.

Followers of our "celebrity pair" will know that they are using the same nest they used last year, and with that comes the same problems. The nest is very close to the Forestry track which, of course, is a public footpath. So in order to protect the birds and those precious eggs "Operation Easter" has swung into action and we have brought all the necessary technology into play.

"Operation Easter" is now in its 10th year and was originally the brainchild of Finlay Christine who was at that time the island's Police Wildlife Liaison Officer. Volunteers from the island, visitors, and the Mull Bird Club organise themselves to watch Mull's White-tailed Sea Eagle nests during incubation, backed up by the police. It seems ludicrous that it should be necessary in this day and age, but these rare birds are still at risk from egg collectors, and the possibility of disturbance by greedy photographers wanting to take the ultimate picture from a position too close to the nest.

Our dedicated team of watchers guard the nests 24/7 from a safe distance, aided by CCTV and alarms to notify us when someone is walking past the nest. This year the hide will be in a different position, to the north of the nest, so visitors to the hide will be escorted in from the Dervaig end of the track.

At the moment we are using a temporary hide as we can't move the main hide past the eagles' nest whilst they are incubating eggs. We will wait around two weeks after the chick(s) hatch and then tow the hide along the track to its new position. Once the eagles have chicks to feed they won't leave them, so they will be safe whilst the hide is moved.

With the new site comes a whole host of new views of the loch and the wildlife around it. Today the weather has been appalling with strong winds and torrential rain, so the on-duty eagle has been sat tight on the nest, with just its head visible to our visitors. But we have a Raven colony on the cliffs above us so we can watch the adults bringing in food to their young, and this morning we were lucky enough to see a pair of Golden Eagles flying right above us, being harrassed by one of the Ravens.

The drive from the meeting point to the hide is a little longer than last year, but the views are spectacular and we have already seen Hen Harriers. So despite the weather my first day back has been all it promised to be, and I'm looking forward to keeping you up to date with events at Loch Frisa. Until next time.